Rock vs. Ice: Which Climb is Better?
An Insider’s Look at Climbing Along Alaska’s Seward Highway
By Jeannine Stafford-Jabaay
Summer to winter. With the transition of seasons upon us, the scenic drive along Alaska’s Seward Highway will be changing views. Where was once seen the occasional rock climber daring the infamous “Chugach Crud,” the bundled ice climber will now be found chipping away at frozen waterfalls.
Although on the surface (no pun intended) there are many similarities, ice climbing is nothing like rock climbing. It is, in fact, a completely different sport. Yes, it requires a harness, rope and carabiner setup. And yes, there is an obvious element of outdoor vertical climbing. But, that is essentially where the similarities end.
While both practices have physical demands, the not-so-subtle differences are evident in levels and type of adrenaline (the real motivator for most climbers), safety (which should be at the top of every athlete’s mind), cardio and affordability.
Some of the greatest rock climbers in the world make natural ice climbers. Similarly, most ice climbers enjoy an occasional journey up a rock wall. Yet most will discover their innate preference for one or the other. Perhaps the greatest deciding factor amongst climbers is their predilection towards one type of adrenaline or another.
“Rocks give a very strong sense of physicality, of mind against matter,” shares Chris Moss, an international traveler and avid climber. “The ultimate thrill, [rock] climbers say, is going headlong into a challenge, rather than backing away, facing up to your fears of the void.” Describing the difference of rock versus ice climbing, Moss shares, “With icicles on your rope (in extreme climbs) and a constant fight with an alien environment, there’s an even greater high. Climbers talk of a state of inner peace and almost meditative ecstasy.”
One interesting distinguisher between climbing disciplines are the stereotypes. While rock climbers have a history and an almost pride in being seen as a “dirt bag” – someone living out of a van at the base of a mountain with very little else driving them than their next project – ice climbers portray an alpinist and expeditionist high-altitude persona.
“[Ice climbing] is both an adrenaline rush, and it’s a puzzle-solving test. A lot of engineers, technical people get into this because of the problem-solving abilities necessary to do vertical ice,” said Chuck Monjak, an optical systems engineer for a semiconductor firm who is a rock climber turned ice climber. “I think that’s why a lot of us do it – because of the adrenaline rush, like riding a motorcycle around with a track at 100 miles an hour or jumping out of an airplane or all the other ‘extreme’ things people do,” Monjak says.
As with most adrenaline, that rush does not come without its risk. Which is why safety in climbing both rock and ice is critical. “[Rock climbing] falls do happen, but they are rare – especially if you rely on teamwork, good ropes and sound equipment,” says Moss. “Overuse injuries to hands, wrists and elbows, as well as strains, are more common.”
The difference in ice climbing comes primarily in the elements of cold and ice. “There are more risks, such as avalanches and sudden blowouts – lumps of ice exploding on the slope – caused by too much lingering on a shelf of fragile ice,” Moss explains.
Climbing along the Seward Highway affords additional risk. With cars whizzing by, hearing your climbing partner can be a real challenge, even impossible at times. Some climbers will use walkie-talkies or cell phones to communicate with their partner. But keeping both hands on the rock or ax and ice is often critical to safety. So, while the Seward Highway doesn’t afford the world’s most secure climbing environment, it is a perpetual go-to for many Alaskans who are drawn to the deeply frozen waterfalls and the convenience of the location near Anchorage.
The physical challenges between rock and ice climbing are also distinct. While rock climbing long pitches requires tremendous balance and bursts of strength, ice climbing demands sustained energy in extreme cold.
“[Rock] climbers need to be lithe, almost feline at times – agility matters more than strength,” states Moss. “Climbing exercises the forearms, calves and fingers and makes the upper back solid and well balanced.” In contract, Moss shares that ice climbing is “an almost unrivaled exercise in providing a complete workout, pushing every part of your body. Ice is harder, so expect even firmer, more defined muscles, less fat and better contours.”
A final comparison of climbing disciplines is the affordability. Consistent with the dirt bag stereotype, rock climbing can require as little as rock climbing shoes for bouldering. A full day’s sport climb set up would likely include a helmet (especially needed for climbing along the Seward Highway), a harness dressed with a couple of carabineers and a belay device, a few slings and a dozen quick draws.
In contrast, the gear necessary for a route up frozen water is much more involved. “One of the big challenges is the amount of equipment required – especially in bad weather. Basics include crampons, two ice axes, a base layer and down jacket, as well as a bivvy bag and head torch,” says Moss.
The real question for a thrill-seeking Alaskan climber looking to make their way vertical along the Seward Highway is “When is best to climb?” Kelsey Gray, the author of Alaska Rock Climbing Guide and also Alaska Bouldering Guide weighs in. “Prime climbing on the Highway is anytime after a good week of sun. If it’s February and we’ve had a week of sun and the wind is low, then there is a good chance you can go find some fun dry rock on the highway. If you want to do it in a t-shirt than you’ll want to wait until late April and climb till August. The Seward Highway is often the first area that is climbable around Anchorage.”
Whether your are a novice climber looking to start on rock or ice, there are resources available in and around Anchorage. The Alaska Rock Gym offers indoor group classes for both rock and dry tooling, a way to practice using an ax without the outdoor elements. REI and AMH in Anchorage provide regular training sessions. And the Mountaineering Club of Alaska connects mentors with less experienced climbers.